Let the marathon begin: San Diego adopts California’s first SCS

By Autumn Bernstein, Stuart Cohen, and Eliot Rose.

Many SB 375 watchers have opined that the law’s success will require a “marathon, not a sprint” since the inertia of existing transportation and land use plans is so powerful. But as others have pointed out, the challenges faced by our communities and our planet are so great we simply cannot wait that long.

Today’s approval of the first-ever sustainable communities strategy (SCS) in San Diego, shows how true both statements are.  For months, advocates have been pushing SANDAG, the San Diego area’s regional transportation planning agency, to roll back sprawl-inducing highway expansions and redirect those funds to accelerate public transit and bicycle projects.  SANDAG received letters from the California Attorney General and Air Resources Board, as well as almost 4,000 comments from the public on the draft plan, and many of these called on SANDAG to take meaningful action now.

In a clear signal that this public input has had an impact, today the Board approved a number of last-minute improvements designed to strengthen the plan’s commitments to active transportation and transit-oriented development, including:

—  Development of an early action program for active transportation (bike/ped) projects within two years;
—  Development of a regional complete streets policy;
—  Creation of a transit-oriented development policy

But the final plan leaves one of the most fundamental issues unaddressed.  Due in large part to the constraints imposed by San Diego’s countywide voter-approved sales tax, TransNet, which is the primary source of dollars for transportation projects in the region, none of the expensive highway projects that the region had previously committed to funding were on the table for reconsideration during this process. This left very few discretionary dollars (roughly three percent of the total RTP budget) on the table to fund new public transit and active transportation projects in the early years of the plan, which would have put the San Diego region on a faster track to reducing GHG emissions.  And due to bad timing – SANDAG was halfway through the process before ARB issued GHG reduction targets – the agency had already made key decisions about land use and housing without receiving any guidance from the state. That’s where this SCS starts to feel like the first leg of a marathon.

So perhaps the most encouraging thing to happen today was not the changes that SANDAG approved to this plan, but the commitments it made for the next go-round.  In response to concerns about “backsliding” of GHG emission reductions over time (the plan achieves the greatest gains in 2020, but these gains erode over the next several decades), SANDAG agreed to develop a scenario for their upcoming Regional Comprehensive Plan update that would address this issue.  For such a scenario to succeed in steadily reducing GHG emissions over time, it would almost certainly require reconsideration of some big-ticket road expansion projects, significant additional investments in transit, and strong policies to encourage transit-oriented development.

This is an important opportunity, but developing a scenario for informative purposes and implementing that scenario are two very different things.  The new scenario will only have an impact if SANDAG develops its next RTP/SCS using an effective planning process that includes robust scenario planning and deep community engagement.  It also needs to evaluate all scenarios using a wider variety of performance measures, such as public health impacts, household travel costs and natural resource protection, so people understand how smart policies to reach climate goals can make our regions healthier and more prosperous.

As the rest of California – and the nation – dissects the San Diego case study, there is rich fodder for both those who want to see SB 375 hit the ground running and for those who are calling for slow and steady implementation. In several weeks we will release a retrospective that unpacks the best and worst of the San Diego SCS and the key lessons learned.

Southern California and Sacramento are poised to adopt their SCSes in early 2012, with the Bay Area and San Joaquin Valley not far behind. Each faces its own set of constraints and opportunities, yet there are similarities between regions that are too important to overlook.  It will likely take some time for California’s grand experiment in regional sustainability to take hold, but at the same time we need bold and quick action in order to reverse decades of planning that’s been focused on accommodating cars and sprawl.  SANDAG may not have sprinted out of the blocks with this RTP/SCS, but at least it figured out which direction it needs to be running in.


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